Public Domain

Items in the public domain are not subject to copyright laws and are freely available to use without pursuing permission. In the United States, works in the public domain include:

  • Most federal government material
  • Items that were created during the time that copyright registration was required, but not obtained
  • Audio recorded before 1972, which is not protected by federal copyright
    • It may still have state-enforced “common law” copyright
  • Works where the copyright has expired (they enter the public domain on Jan. 1st of the year after their copyright expires)
  • Items where the author has released their rights (this is irrevocable–once you release rights, you cannot get them back)

Things that are not copyright-able:

  • Ideas, facts, slogans, useful objects (there still may be a trademark or patent to consider)
  • Raw data–but the creative presentation/expression of that data can be copyrighted (an article, an infographic, a chart, etc.; a phonebook, as an organized collection of raw data, is not a creative expression of information and is not, therefore, subject to copyright) and it is still a best practice to ask permission to reuse the data; researchers can refuse to release their raw data.
  • Scènes à faire: themes, storylines, characterizations that are common/traditional (various stereotypes, Romeo & Juliet forbidden love plot lines, etc.–these are more like ideas)

You can use the Public Domain Slider to begin investigating whether something is in the public domain.

One example of how the evolution of US Copyright laws has impacted our public domain:
Bambi, the original book, was originally published in 1923 in Germany without copyright. It was republished in 1926 with US copyright which, at the time, was 95 years. As a result, it won’t be in the public domain until 2022 even though the author did pass away over 70 years ago and it would otherwise have entered the public domain in 2016. In fact, due to the fluctuation in copyright terms throughout recent history, no works will enter the public domain in the US until 2019.


Would you like to delve further into public domain issues? You can read James Boyle’s book, The Public Domain, for free online.

Next, we’ll look at the Educational Exemptions in the law for teachers and students.


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Disclaimer: The content of this page is presented for informational purposes only and is not intended to substitute for legal advice.